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Lead up for grabs at Peshawar

Nimish Dubey
(nimish@enableall.org)


One thing you can say about the ongoing series is that it has dispelled any notions that this was going to be a battle between bat and ball. Going by the two matches played so far, the ball really has not come into the picture. For reasons best known to the hosts, the pitches prepared so far have been absolutely perfect for batting and a bowler’s nightmare. The bat has dominated to a ridiculous extent with India’s 317 in the second match being the lowest score of the series so far. Add to that the fact that no bowler has come close to taking four wickets in an innings or even conceding less than four runs an over and you get the picture.

And there is no reason to assume that Peshawar will be any different.

Indian injuries

Of course, that does not make the match any less important. The team that wins will get the tremendous psychological boost of knowing that it is just a match away from clinching the series and of course, the loser will have to win two matches on the trot to win the series – a difficult task, given the way things have gone.

So far both teams seem evenly matched with batsmen in full bloom and bowlers playing out bit parts. India, however, have reason to worry, thanks to their injury list. Already without Harbhajan, Kumble and Agarkar, the team could ill-afford to lose Nehra, easily its best bowler of the series. And neither VVS Laxman nor skipper Sourav Ganguly looked remotely match-fit at Rawalpindi. Their combined failure contributed as much to India’s defeat as some rather sloppy batting towards the end. There is also the little matter of the fourth and fifth bowlers. While Yuvraj exceeded expectations at Rawalpindi and Powar looked handy, neither is a specialist bowler. To top it all, the team’s fielding and wicket-keeping are atrocious!

But all these matters will count for nothing if the Indian batting machine continues to roll along in its current mood. The troika of Sehwag, Tendulkar and Dravid is looking in ominous form, with each having topped fifty once apiece in the past two matches.   It surely is just a matter of time before the others join the party. And going by his nerveless and strokeful show on debut, Ramesh Powar could be just the batsman India were missing in the lower order.

Pakistani problems

It is this feature of the Indian team that will be causing headaches in the Pakistan camp. For one, the host nation’s bowlers have delivered only in fits and starts. For another, its batsmen have been playing out of their skin and are due for a slump, going by the law of averages. The Pakistanis have been marginally better in the field but that is not going to count for much if their bowlers keep dishing out trash. To hope that Inzamam will win the toss every time and allow them to score a big total to pressurise the visitors is hardly a viable strategy!

And speaking of Inzamam, is it not time he tried to work out a strategy himself instead of looking askance at the dressing room (read ‘Javed Miandad’) every time he faces a problem in the middle? There was a stage during the Rawlpindi match when the Pakistan captain did not even know how many overs each of his bowlers had left to bowl.  Most embarrassing!

Crystal ball time: What to expect

India are bound to make some changes to the team. The fact that Nehra has been ruled out for the one-day series paves the way for the return of Irfan Pathan (whose exclusion from the team is surely a mystery to rival that of the Bermuda Triangle) as Amit Bhandari is unlikely to be rushed into action straightaway. Nehra’s absence also means that Zaheer Khan will in all probability hold on to his place in the team. Mind you, there are a number of people who believe that Zaheer should be given the boot and Bhandari and Kartik be brought in, but that is unlikely to happen. Not yet, anyway. Ramesh Powar’s gutsy debut with bat as well as ball should see him continuing in the side although Kartik or Badani could come in if Laxman’s fitness remains doubtful.

Pakistan on the other hand have no real reason to change the squad. Most of the batsmen have got runs, and while the bowling has been substandard, there are no replacements available in that department. There is an outside chance that Taufiq Umar (of whom Imran Khan speaks so highly) might get a look-in for Younis Khan or Shabbir Ahmed. But I honestly don’t see that happening as Khan has got a few useful cameos in the series and Ahmed is unlikely to be waved good-bye after just one match. Also, dropping Ahmed would mean expecting Afridi and Hameed to bowl ten overs between themselves – a risky proposition against the rampant Indian batting.

What may change is Pakistan’s batting and bowling order! Abdur Razzaq’s two breezy knocks have made a case for him coming ahead of Moin and Shoaib Malik in the batting line up. Similarly, the hosts have not yet settled on an opening bowling combination. While Akhtar bowled well at Rawalpindi, Shabbir Ahmed was a bit of a disappointment as was Sami in the earlier match. I would advocate using Razzaq alongside Akhtar with the new ball as he has more control and also has an excellent in-cutter that has troubled Tendulkar in the past. Of course, it all boils down to what Inzamam and Miandad think.

Incidentally, Pakistan do not have a good record at Peshawar. They have won four matches and lost as many at this venue which is a short drive away from the Afghan border. India have never played in Peshawar so everything they do will be a record of some sort or the other! The wicket is supposed to be (surprise, surprise) very easy to bat on but there could be some early morning assistance for the bowlers. Nevertheless, winning the toss and bat first is very much the way to go here.

So far the team that has batted first has triumphed in the end, notwithstanding a few jitters. I don’t expect that to change at Peshawar.

Do you agree with our Pundit’s conclusions or do you think he’s missing a trick (or a few marbles)? In either case, feel free to mail him at nimish@enableall.org.


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